One, two , three, I counted through my head as the matooke fingers went in my shopping basket. I only buy six fingers to make an additional dish to my meals. I remembered the look on my mother’s face when we first bought counted matooke fingers on West Green Road during her visit to London a couple of years ago. Astonished is an understatement “How can anyone count matooke to cook?” She asked. She shook her head in disbelief at me counting Matooke. “We are in London and not Masaka”. ”We are even lucky to be able to buy it” I said to her shrieking with laughter. In London, matooke arrives as a mixture of biwagu and minwe in a box. It is sold in kilograms, you either buy the whole box, or count and pick fingers up to the weight you can afford to buy and consume.
As I was leaving the shop, two women were picking matooke ,looking down inside the boxes. They turned to make way for me to pass. ”Juliet” one of them shouted. I looked at her in puzzlement, her face was known to me but in that split second I couldn’t place it in any part of the universe. It was obvious from waiting to pick matooke that she was Ugandan. She quickly picked up that I didn’t immediately recognise who she was, she then said “Uganda Red Cross”. My eyes and mouth went wide open. “Sande” I shouted, “I am pleased to see you”. Sande was the receptionist at The Uganda Red Cross Society when I worked there 1987-1990.I last saw her in 1990 when I moved to Britain. In 2010 we were meeting on West Green Road.
To know another person of Ugandan origin in Britain is good enough, but to meet one you knew in Uganda is a blessing. Not only do you share an experience, you share a past from back home. “How are you? Where do you live? Do you live in the UK?” the questions came out of my mouth like tongues of flame. “I am here on a visit and I stay with my niece Zawedde on Lordship Lane” She replied, as she introduced me to her niece. “It will be nice to meet up before your visit ends” I said excitedly. “What happened at work when I left?” We all laughed out loud and immediately shut our mouths, when a dark skinned short woman with long hair braids, who was picking bright yellow plantain from a box next to us, gave us a dirty look. “Maybe you can come to my house for an afternoon, and tell me about Kakande, Rob hm hm”I said. Sande and Zawedde burst out and laughed.”Do you remember those men? Rob died a few years ago” She replied. “Oh bambi nga kitalo” Oh too bad, I said sympathetically. I glanced around and realised were beginning to draw attention of the shoppers by our laughter.
The Asian shopkeeper was coming towards us from inside the shop, the look on his face was piercing. It was a warning to us to move away, we were obstructing the fruit and vegetable area for shoppers. We stepped away from the stall, and after a brief conversation it became clear that we had a lot to talk about; our past life working in the same organisation. I wanted to catch up on every colleague of that era in Uganda Red Cross, and the current life we now lead. We exchanged telephone numbers and I invited her to my house, we agreed to make arrangements on phone. I decided to continue walking, there were a couple of shops a few yards away I needed to visit before hopping on to bus no 41 at the next stop.
My mind occupied by Sande, I began to question my decision to invite her to my house. Until we met that day on West Green road, I only knew her as a work colleague, standing behind the reception desk at the Uganda Red Cross offices at Nakasero. I used say “hello” every morning and speak to her if there was any matter of concern, otherwise we were not friends. My father especially loved to come to my work place. I lived in Kampala at that time and my family lived in Masaka. Whenever he was in town or just wanted to see me, he would travel 2 hrs from Masaka to meet me for lunch in Kampala. At times he came early that he had to wait for me at reception for a considerable amount of time until my lunch break. Offering cups of tea is not really common office practice , there was a tea girl employed to make teas for all staff including receptionists at 10am.So apart from giving my father a seat and notifying me, Sande wasn’t really involved. Our jobs were far apart, I was head of the AIDS Control Programme. I didn’t socialise with her outside of work and none of us knew where each other lived.
This was a start of a new relationship, a new balance of power and I wasn’t sure what the ‘friendship’ would be or if I wanted it. In 2010 had my house become my castle or did I still have the ‘open door to all’ like in Uganda? I debated with myself. I was so immersed in my thoughts wondering whether this is the process of integration, but then I had just bought matooke. I felt a cloud in my brain through which I could hear my Mother’s words of the Baganda saying growing up, ‘Munnyumba temuli kubo’, and ‘there is no path through a home, every one is a visitor’. With no clear answer, I just put it down to imagining if it had been me, what would I have expected if I met another Ugandan from the past? Staring in space and feeling empty, I startled and nearly lost my balance as my feet felt heavy from the uneven pedestrian pavement. As if waking up from a bad dream, I heard the voice of Adjoa my Ghanaian hairdresser calling me in her West African accent, from the saloon opposite. “Juliet”
After my discussion with Adjoa, I walked on, my thoughts soon drifted back to Sande as if Adjoa had just interrupted a bad dream. My reservations about her arose from an experience I had with Musa, another previous colleague from Uganda Red Cross Society in 1996.I was busy putting last touches to a dinner one dark winter Saturday afternoon. My old school friend Alikisa and her family were coming round for the evening. I had bumped into her three weeks earlier in Wood Green shopping city. We had not seen each other since 1981 after Uganda Certificate of Education (GCSE) when we shared a cubicle at boarding school in Cox House, Gayaza High School. This was a catch up evening and to introduce our children and meet her husband. I was very excited.
“Hello” I answered the phone.”Can I speak to Juliet?” a man asked in a deep coarse voice. “Speaking, may I know who is calling?” “Musa” he replied. “Musa who, if, I may ask?” “Musa you worked with in Uganda Red Cross”. “Oh I remember you? Where are you calling from? Are you in the UK? I asked rapidly to establish where he was. It was extremely unlikely that someone so long in my past would phone me from Uganda, even my family don’t call. The best you can get is a text message asking you to call or a beep indicating you should call. An international phone bill is none of their business. It has never occurred to them that we pay for calls.”I am at London Heathrow” he replied.”Are you at immigration?” I asked apprehensively. “No”. Musa went on to explain that he had entered the country a few days ago on a business trip, but the hotels at Heathrow were too expensive, and asked if I could pick him up and to stay with me.
“Oh dear!” I sighed feeling angry.”Where did you get my phone number from anyway? I lashed out. He didn’t answer, though I could hear his hard breathing at the end of the line. I felt a sense of betrayal, anguish and despair. Musa was putting me in a difficult position. He had not contacted me before he left Uganda and I had no idea about his business arrangements. I did have a good relationship with him when we worked together, in fact we were friends. But that was a long time ago and we didn’t keep in touch. Alikisa and her family were due anytime soon. There was no way I was going to cancel my visitors to pick him up at Heathrow. “Does he have any idea how far away I was? This is equivalent to a drive from Masaka to Kampala.”
To be continued…